Tag Archives: Indianapolis Speedway Team Company

Indianapolis’ Early Auto Innovation – Part 2

Late in 1908, Carl and one of his real estate associates, Lem Trotter, were returning home on a drive from Dayton, Ohio, to Indianapolis. Their anticipated short drive soon became difficult. The car overheated twice and just inside the Indiana border the vehicle blew the third tire of the day. Fisher remarked to Trotter about how unreliable American cars were and that the nation needed a suitable test track. Trotter challenged Fisher: “You’ve been talking about a racetrack ever since you got back from Europe. If you think it will make money, why don’t you build it yourself?” Fisher encouraged Trotter to find a suitable site for such a track.

Trotter located a 320-acre parcel known as the Pressley farm, located about five miles west of downtown Indianapolis along Crawfordsville Pike. Fisher immediately enlisted his business partner Allison, who shared Fisher’s excitement for the venture. They approached mutual friends and racing associates: Arthur C. Newby, and carburetor manufacturer Frank H. Wheeler to join them. They filed incorporation papers under the name of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Company, capitalized at $250,000, on February 8, 1909. They immediately began planning for the 1909 racing season.

Louis Strang with IMS model 1909
Louis Strang with IMS model 1909

For more on the happenings at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway peruse my blogs during April and May each year.

July 3, 1912, marked the founding of the town of Speedway Indiana. On this date, deeds were transferred for the 240-acre site to Carl G. Fisher and James A. Allison, owners of the Globe Realty Company, and Lem Trotter, their real estate partner.

The partners conceived the town of Speedway to be a horseless manufacturing city adjacent to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway served by two railroads and modern thoroughfares. The city was designed to be attractive to skilled workers to provide steady employment for the nearby factories.

The realty company laid out the residential section on a grid of streets between 16th and 10th streets and between Main and Winton. The east side of Main Street was platted for factories.

Carl G. Fisher drives the Stoddard Dayton pace car 1909
Carl G. Fisher drives the Stoddard Dayton pace car 1909

Fisher and Allison’s Prest-O-Lite Company was the first to build five buildings on the north plat near 16th Street. The charging building was located at the far end of the property to preclude damage to other properties from possible gas explosions. This facility opened in May 12, 1913. Swartz Electric Company, makers of automobile batteries and electric appliances, opened its plant about the same time. The Electric Steel Company completed facilities in 1915. The lots on the west side of Main Street were specified for stores and offices.

Shortly after the introduction of the electric starting and lighting system by Cadillac in 1912, Fisher and Allison soon realized that this system would soon dominate the automotive market. Fortunately, they found a company interested in purchasing their Prest-O-Lite holdings. Union Carbide realized that the containers produced by Fisher and Allison had dozens of other marketable uses. In addition, the company had discovered other applications for the gasses, from welding to medical purposes. Union Carbide offered the partners roughly $9 million in a combination of cash and stock for their business in 1917.

Following the 1915 500 mile race, Fisher and Allison became concerned that European teams would not participate in International races during World War I and decided to develop their own racing team. They commissioned five racers and formed the Indianapolis Speedway Team Company in September 1915. Eddie Rickenbaker encouraged them to form the two-car Prest-O-Lite Team at the same time.

In 1916, Allison became the sole owner of the Indianapolis Speedway Team Company and moved operations to a small shop on the corner of the Prest-O-Lite lot. Of the 26 cars entered in the 1916 race, seven were from the Speedway Team and Prest-O-Lite Team companies. As a high-end machine shop, the Speedway Team Company soon began developing automotive parts for other racing teams.

That’s how Indianapolis’ auto innovation grew in the early 1910’s.

For more information on Indiana cars & companies, follow this link.

Louis Chevrolet and his Frontenac Racing Team

In preparation for the 1916 championship racing season, Albert Champion and Joe Boyer provided Louis Chevrolet with financial help to form the Frontenac Motors Corporation of Michigan. Louis and his younger brothers Art and Gaston launched an “immediate crash program” to build three all-new Frontenac race cars with 300-cubic-inch displacement engines for the 1916 Indianapolis race. They made generous use of aluminum construction for the best possible power-to-weight ratio. They barely accomplished their task in time to attempt qualification at the Speedway. However, their speed of development provided no opportunity to eliminate the mechanical “bugs” that were a part of such a project.

Louis qualified at 87.70 miles an hour. The car Art chose to drive himself had to be abandoned when its cylinder block cracked. Because no spare engine was available, he commandeered the car assigned to Boyer and qualified at a speed of 87.72 miles an hour.

Louis Chevrolet in a Frontenac
Louis Chevrolet in a Frontenac 1916

During the race, Art was the first of the team eliminated on lap 35 due to a magneto failure and finished in 17th place. Louis dropped out of the race on lap 82 with a broken connecting rod and finished in 11th place.

However, as the season progressed, they gradually solved all of their mechanical problems. Louis accounted for the first of many Frontenac victories by winning the Inaugural 100-lap race at the new Uniontown, PA, board track at more than 90 miles an hour.

In 1917, Louis scored victories at the 250-mile event in Cincinnati, OH, and additional victories in 100-mile races at Chicago, IL, and Sheepshead Bay, NY. Then the AAA Contest Board discontinued sanctioning racing for the duration of World War I.

Ralph Mulford in Frontenac 1919
Ralph Mulford in Frontenac 1919

Full-scale racing operations resumed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1919, and Louis was jubilant when all four of his Frontenacs were among the seven cars that qualified in Indianapolis at more than 100 miles an hour. Then “Lady Luck” turned her back on him again. Race Day was almost a complete disaster for the team. Boyer’s and Ralph Mulford’s cars were eliminated early by a broken axle and broken drive shaft, respectively. Gaston limped across the finish line in 10th place, slowed by ignition trouble. Louis lost a right rear wheel while out-dueling Ralph DePalma for the lead during the first 150 miles and finished in seventh place, while DePalma finished in sixth place. The Frontenac Racing Team saga was over for this era.

Howdy Wilcox won the race in an Indianapolis Speedway Team Company-owned Peugeot.

For more information on Indiana auto pioneers follow this link.

Remembering the 1916 Indianapolis 500

The 1916 Indianapolis 500 will be remembered forever as one of the most trouble-packed undertakings in the Speedway’s history.

Following the 1915 500-mile race, Carl G. Fisher and James A. Allison became concerned that European teams would not participate in International races during World War I. They decided to develop their own racing team to fill the expected gaps in the starting lineup caused by the growing absence of factory-sponsored entries. They commissioned five racers and formed the Indianapolis Speedway Team Company in September 1915. As part of the team, Eddie Rickenbacker encouraged them to include the two Maxwells sponsored by the Prest-O-Lite Team.

Eddie Rickenbacker in a Maxwell
Eddie Rickenbacker in a Maxwell

In 1916, Allison became the sole owner of the Indianapolis Speedway Team Company and moved operations to a small shop on the corner of the Prest-O-Lite lot in the town of Speedway. Of the 30 cars entered in the 1916 race, seven were from the Speedway Team and Prest-O-Lite Team companies consisting of two Peugeots, two Maxwells, and three Premiers.

Track officials also complied willingly with suggestions made by spectators and press representatives designating 300 miles as the “ideal distance” for high-speed championship events. More than half of the available cars were two or three years old. Fisher was skeptical of their ability to finish a 500-mile test.
When entries closed on May 1, the official list consisted of 30 eligible cars for the 33 available starting positions, not too bad under the circumstances. Track management, however, still had cause for considerable concerns.

Eleven of the 30, including three Speedway Team Premiers, were new cars still under construction. There was considerable doubt that any of the 11 could be completed in time. Several of the others were of questionable quality, with comparatively unknown drivers assigned to them. An honest appraisal of the situation convinced Track management that were only 13 bona fide contenders. These were the four-car Speedway Team, three Delages entered by Harry Harkness, two Duesenbergs, Dario Resta’s Peugeot, Barney Oldfield’s Delage, Ralph Mulford’s Peugeot, and an English Sunbeam assigned to Josef Christiaens.

The Track’s concern of a full field was not alleviated when only 10 competed in the first championship event of the year on the new two-mile board track at Sheepshead Bay, NY, on May 13.

Oldfield and Christiaens reached Indianapolis on May 16 to open the pre-race practice period, joining Johnny Aitken and Charley Merz on the track in Speedway Team-owned Peugeots. Resta and Tom Alley arrived two days later, with Rickenbacker and Pete Henderson also on hand to tune-up their Speedway Team-owned Maxwells.

Gil Anderson in a Premier
Gil Anderson in a Premier

The first two Premiers, painted green and assigned to Gil Anderson and Tom Rooney, were fired up for the first time on May 23. The Frontenacs arrived the following morning and all three members of the new Crawford team completed a tiring overland drive from Hagerstown, MD, later in the day at the wheel of their respective racers.

But only 22 cars were on the grounds for the start of time trials on Friday, May 26. Twelve of them still needed considerable work in order to attain the required minimum speed of 80 miles an hour. When the 10 successful qualifiers were joined by only four more on Saturday, race officials held an emergency meeting and set up an additional two-hour period for time trials on Sunday. Five successful runs against the clock increased the list of eligible cars to 19, including the third new Premier, which Howdy Wilcox qualified after driving it only eight laps.

Another extension of time permitted Ralph Mulford to qualify on May 29, and Eddie O’Donnell also made the grade in a Duesenberg. Several of the early qualifiers were far from satisfied with the performance of their respective cars, however, and insisted that additional practice time was necessary on race morning, May 30, for final “tuning.” Such permission was granted at another emergency meeting of officials, who also announced that any unqualified car could make another attempt to get into the lineup during the special practice session scheduled from 10 a.m. until noon. The start of the race was scheduled for 1:30 p.m.

Art Chevrolet “blew a cylinder” in the Frontenac that he had qualified earlier. Fortunately, he was allowed to start the race in another Frontenac previously qualified by Joe Boyer.

Louis Chevrolet in a Frontenac
Louis Chevrolet in a Frontenac

The 21 starting positions for the race were assigned according to speed in time trials, regardless of the day on which the various entrants had qualified. Members of the Speedway Team were strong favorites because they had captured seven of the first nine positions.
The starting lineup was Aitken, Rickenbacker, Anderson, Resta, Oldfield, Wilcox, Rooney, Merz, Henderson, Wilbur D’Alene, Art Chevrolet, Louis Chevrolet, Jules Vigne, O. F. Halbe, Christiaens, Billy Chandler, Aldo Franchi, Art Johnson, Dave Lewis, Jack LeCain, and Alley.

Rickenbacker and Aitken set the early pace. But a series of misfortunes engulfed every member of the Speedway team in rapid order. Rickenbacker broke a steering knuckle on the tenth lap, and Aitken blew a tire on his 17th lap. Resta, pressing them relentlessly at speeds up to 98 miles an hour, roared into the lead at this point and never was challenged seriously during the remainder of the event. After lapping the entire field and making his only pit stop of the day without losing first place, he built up a six-minute advantage over his nearest rival by running a steady 85 miles an hour and “coasted” to victory.

Dario Resta in a Peugeot
Dario Resta in the winning Peugeot

Wilbur D’Alene, a comparatively unknown young member of the Duesenberg team, finished a surprising second with Mulford in third, Christiaens in fourth and Oldfield in fifth. Rickenbacker, driving relief for Henderson after a long pit stop, struggled home in sixth position. Wilcox salvaged seventh place despite repeated ignition trouble. Louis Chevrolet in his Frontenac and Gil Anderson in his Premier finished 11th and 12th respectively. As for the others members of the Speedway team, mechanical failure ended the hopes of Merz and Anderson, and Rooney hit the wall in the third Premier.

For more information on Indiana auto pioneers follow this link.